Paula Morris interview: New Zealand author

New Zealand may be Australia’s neighbour, but sometimes it seems like everything between us comes down to a combination of who beats who at which sport. But, it’s also a country of generous people, of beauty and ok, I have to be honest — everything LOTR. What can I say, I’m a geek.

So, finding out about Paula Morris’ books through a blog hop was a wonderful delight. Her books are based in cities as diverse as Shanghai, New Orleans and of course New Zealand, and as a result, her writing offers me at least a wonderful chance to get lost in some of my favourite cities and of course, New Zealand. I’ve just realised how few NZ authors I know — soon to be rectified though!

Paula is also diverse genre writer — she’s written literary fiction, YA, with some satire thrown in, and short stories and she teaches writing too. Her most recent YA novel, The Eternal City,  is set in Rome, and is going to be released well, tomorrow! So keep an eye out for it!

What would your fans be most surprised to learn about you as a reader?

Perhaps that since last July I’ve been utterly obsessed with Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘My Struggle’ series. Four of the six have been published in English so far. If I had more time, I would do nothing but read his books all day.

Eternal CityWhat genre have you never been able to enjoy, no matter how hard you try?

As a writing teacher, I need catholic tastes: I have to be able to read and give useful comments on science fiction, fantasy, crime, and so on. At home I don’t read much speculative fiction. I’d rather watch crime series on TV than read crime books that aren’t well-written and violate point of view!

Some writers never doubt they were meant to write, and others find themselves accidental writers — were you always meant to be a writer? Did you ever doubt yourself until something convinced you that you could do it?

I always loved writing, but during my 20s I wasn’t writing fiction at all: I was writing press-releases, ads, sales copy, bios, and so on. Later I was copywriting and writing technical copy and writing franchise manuals – all sorts of things. I suppose this means I always saw myself as a writer, no matter job I was doing at the time.

Between your own experiences and success, and now your teaching what do you think are the three things essential for a writer? Can the list of what makes a good writer ever be whittled down to just three things?

You need talent and you need discipline. If we include technical mastery in ‘discipline,’ then the third thing would be artistic vision. Without it you’ll change your work every time someone new gives you an opinion. At some point you need to have some notion of what you’re doing, in every sense.

Your fiction (adult) covers New Orleans, Shanghai, New York and New Zealand – given the differences between the culture and the people of these cities, what was most important to you in writing to convey these cities and their unique cultures accurately?

That’s a hard question to answer. Even when you’re an outsider somewhere, I think, you can’t write like a tourist. rangatiraYou have to investigate, infiltrate and ask questions, as well as listen to the local idiom and watch people. You have to use the right words for things and grasp something, at least, of a city’s customs and habits, of its seething subconscious and unspoken rules. Sometimes you have to make an enormous imaginative leap.

By the time I was able to go to Shanghai, for example, to research my second novel, Hibiscus Coast, I knew the main character well, and had a notion of the neighbourhood in which she would choose to live, for example, and the kinds of places she’d frequent. So I was able to go off in search of her life there, along the way finding lots of unexpected things that were enormously useful to my understanding of her character and experience.

Perhaps the most important thing when you’re writing about places is the same as writing about people: to see them as individual and three-dimensional, not generic or stereotypical.

Your work also covers different genres from thrillers to satire and YA, with some supernatural thrown in – did any genre ever give you any pause before you began writing? How so?

Most of what I write is literary fiction, which may be funny or sad or somewhere in between. My YA novels are all mysteries with a supernatural twist. Everything gives me pause before writing, because all the books are giant puzzles taking shape in my head.

Is there a genre you would like to write in, but haven’t yet?

I’ve been working on a play, which I hope to finish this year. Although I’ve seen and read a lot of plays, it’s a huge challenge to write one for the first time.

What were the easiest parts about these genres in your experiences? The writing experience that was the same, no matter what you were writing?

paula-morris-forbidden-citiesThe writing experience, I think, depends on the particular book, and much has to do with what else is going on around it in your life – work, travel, family issues, other claims on your time. I was cold and miserable when I was writing Rangatira in Glasgow, but I was quite happy with the way the book turned out. Or, at least, it was the book that I’d hoped to write. My worst writing experience was possibly a ghostwriting one, drafting a novel from scratch for someone else in a week. That was a nightmare.

Recently I wrote a long personal essay called ‘On Coming Home,’ just published in May. I’ve never written a personal essay of that length before – it’s around 17,000 words – and it took over my life for several months – lots of reading and writing, thinking and planning, obsessing. I liked the immersion, I have to say, even though it was too intense an experience. I had my first migraine in decades.

What were the unexpected difficulties of working on short stories versus novels? Or, perhaps you find the switch from one to the other easily done?

I love writing stories, and need to write more. I think I’ve only written four in the last five years. You have to know when something is story material rather than novel material. Also, too often when pieces of a novel are swimming around in your subconscious, there’s no room in the pool for anything else. Short stories are a compressed form and therefore very demanding; there’s no room for excess or much digression. They’re taskmasters. But I really enjoy the challenge of them, and the possibilities of stories as well.

What’s next for you in 2015?

My big ongoing project of my own is a novel set in various locations in contemporary Europe. Many other projects are floating around, as ever, threatening to rain down on my head. I still do quite a lot of work for other people, and sometimes that can be overwhelming.

At the moment I’m settling into a new job, teaching creative writing at the University of Auckland, and into living in my hometown after thirty years living elsewhere. But there’s travel coming up as well – to the US in June and July, and to Latvia for a writing residency in November and December. So ‘chaos’ is the answer to your question – the usual chaos!

(Photo credit: Mike Brooke)

Are there any places in literature that you would like to read about? Is New Zealand on that list? Learn more about Paula here.

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